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The Buddhist Archives of Dr. Alexander Berzin

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Session Three: Building Up the Causes for Bodhichitta

Alexander Berzin
Riga, Latvia, July 2004

Review

Having an Accurate Idea of Bodhichitta and Enlightenment

This morning we were speaking about bodhichitta, what it actually is. We saw that there is a relative and deepest bodhichitta, and it is aimed at enlightenment, and specifically our own individual enlightenment which has not yet happened, but which can be imputed on our mental continuum – that at some point it will happen. But it's not inevitable that it will happen, because if we don’t build up the causes for it to happen, it's not going to happen. So, relative bodhichitta is aimed at what that enlightenment actually is, and deepest bodhichitta is aimed at how that future enlightenment exists – it's voidness.

And let's speak in terms of relative bodhichitta – the way that the mind takes that as its object is with two intentions.

  • One intention is to reach that state, in other words for it to become a presently happening enlightenment, not a not-yet-happened enlightenment.

  • The other intention is to benefit everybody as fully as is possible by means of that attainment. But actually that intention comes even earlier because it is part of the motivation that we want to benefit everybody as much as possible, therefore – since we realize that to do that fully we need to achieve enlightenment as fully as is possible – we intend to reach that enlightenment and in fact benefit others.

And so, bodhichitta is accompanied by love and compassion but it's certainly not the same as love and compassion, so we really must differentiate these states of mind, these mental factors. Compassion, after all, has its aim – great compassion (not just ordinary compassion) is aimed at everybody, and specifically the suffering of everybody. It's not aimed at enlightenment; it's aimed at everybody’s suffering, and the way that the mind holds on to that object is with the wish and intention for them to be free of it, for that suffering to go away, with also an intention that I'm going to do something about it, wishing to be able to do something about it. So that comes first, before bodhichitta. And we can have compassion simultaneously with bodhichitta because we can have several mental states simultaneously with different objects simultaneously, just as we can hear and see at the same time that we're talking to somebody. Likewise, we can have compassion and bodhichitta at the same time, but they are different objects – they're focused on different things. So it's very important to differentiate compassion from bodhichitta. Compassion is the wish for everybody to be free of suffering and the causes of suffering; love is the wish for everybody to be happy and to have the causes for happiness. All of these are different states of mind.

To really be focused properly on the relative truth of our own future enlightenment, which is not-yet-happened – in other words to be focused on what it is – we have to have a very accurate idea of what enlightenment is. If it's an inaccurate idea that we can just wave a magic wand or move our hands and solve all the problems of the world or the universe – well, that's not what enlightenment is, that's not something which is possible. So to aim to achieve it is a fantasy. We have to have a very accurate idea, understanding, of what enlightenment actually is so we need to be very familiar with all the qualities of a Buddha. That we should have learned already when we take refuge, put in a safe direction in our lives – we learn that way before bodhichitta.

Becoming Convinced of Our Own Personal Enlightenment

And, in order to aim to achieve it, we need to be convinced that it is possible to achieve it – it’s possible for me to achieve it. As I said, this requires these two things – it requires several other things, but to focus on it, I have to have an accurate picture, so that accurate picture would tell: how is it that, with this state of Buddhahood, I will be able to benefit everyone as much as is possible? So we have to really understand basic things like no disturbing emotions. Even more basic things: there's no appearance-making, like we discussed this morning, of true existence, which means that we can be fully aware of all the causes and interconnectedness of everything and everybody, everybody’s karma from beginningless time. To know what's going on with a certain person, with each person, what are the reasons for them acting like this or like that. And to know all the consequences of anything that we would teach them, so that we know exactly what's the best thing to teach them; and how that's going to affect them, not only in all future lives, but how it's going to affect everybody else that they interact with as a result of our having taught them this? And the ability to relate to everybody, to communicate to everybody in a way that they can understand and so on, and not be limited to just helping one person at one time. So we have to understand that this is really the way in which we'll be able to help everybody. And still, all that we can do is show them the way. They have to understand for themselves. Then we have to become convinced that it's possible to become like that.

Buddha-Nature

To aim to achieve it, as I said, we need to be convinced that we can achieve it. That means that we need to understand that we have Buddha-nature – we have the basic materials that will allow us to achieve that, make that possible. And that refers to the nature of our minds, the nature of mental activity – the relative nature of it and the deepest nature of it. It’s relative nature is that it's making appearances, it's the activity of making appearances and knowing, perceiving. That is something that will allow for the fact of making appearances of everything and knowing it fully without limitations. So that material is there, that activity is there, of what it is and its basic qualities of the ability to understand, to focus on many things, to be aware of the individuality of things, to take in information, to know how to relate to others, warmth, understanding. All these basic qualities are qualities of that mental activity, so it's just a matter of getting rid of the hindrances that prevent that from functioning fully. Plus, the deepest nature of that mental activity – it does not exist in impossible ways – encapsulated in plastic and it’s always going to be the same and it can't be affected or developed – it can be developed. So we have to really understand Buddha-nature, that this is what enables us to reach that enlightenment. And it has no beginning and it will have no end.

Building Up the Networks of Positive Force and Deep Awareness

We need to realize that this full-functioning of mental activity – it's not yet happening, but it's possible for it to happen. It's not that it's already happening, but it's being covered by some obscuration. It's not-yet happening but it can happen; the basis is there. So we have to understand that as well. We need to also realize that that full-functioning is not going to happen just on the basis of the working material that is there. In order to get that to function fully, then we have to put in a lot of work. And so we have to do two things.

  • We have to purify and get rid of the hindrances, the obscurations that are preventing it from working fully.

  • And we have to build up – it's usually translated as “merit” but what it means is a "positive force,” positive energy. Sometimes it is called “collection of merit” – “collection” is not a very good word here because “collection” is like a collection of stamps and we're not talking about a collection of stamps, a collection of points. We're talking about networking – a lot of positive force that's built up. And we need to network and strengthen the network of not just the positive force or the merit, but also our deep awareness. And deep awareness, sometimes it's called “wisdom,” but what it means, really, is a network of more and more experience and moments of focusing on voidness, specifically, nonconceptually, but we can start conceptually.

Gelug and Sakya traditions explain that building up this positive force is going to develop these basic, relative Buddha-nature qualities – there's potentials in weak form, like warmth and understanding and so on. Whereas Kagyu and Nyingma explain that the way that they function is to help in the purification process, to get rid of the hindrances, the obscurations. But it comes to exactly the same. Kagyu and Nyingma are not saying that the full enlightenment state is already functioning. They're saying that it's not yet functioning, but if you get rid of the hindrances, then it will function fully. Gelugpa and Sakya are saying that well, if you get rid of the hindrances, you work on that, and also you work on developing the positive qualities. But everybody is in the end doing exactly the same thing. And so it's just a matter of a different interpretation of how it works, so we shouldn't think that it's contradictory – it's not. Even when you read, well, “We're already Buddhas,” that doesn't mean that the mind is already functioning as a Buddha, that it's just sort of hidden inside. That's not Buddhism at all; that's one of the Hindu schools – Samkhya, to be specific.

We also need to understand, why do you need to build up these two networks and how does it function? And so we need to understand that the more experience we have of focusing deeply, nonconceptually, on voidness, it networks together. It gets stronger and stronger so that eventually we can stay focused on it forever, without coming out of it. And if we can do that, we need to know that that means that you can’t have, simultaneously with that, either the disturbing emotions, the unawareness about reality, or the mind making appearances of impossible ways of existing. And so we understand why we need to build up more and more experience of this.

All of that, of course, is based on what we discussed this morning of realizing that these limitations – the unawareness, disturbing emotions, making appearances of things truly existing with lines around them and so on – that these are things that can be removed. These are not in the nature of the mental activity. So we to have understood that as well. On the basis of that, we would realize the importance of building up more and more this network of deep awareness, the purpose of it. And we need to understand why we have to build up a network of positive force and how it functions, and for that we need to understand by doing constructive things – actually helping others, developing these constructive states of mind, generosity and discipline and so on – this gives a great deal of positive energy.

That positive energy is necessary; it's like the fuel that will drive us forward, in a sense. We also have to understand how, when you've built up a certain level of that positive force, it's like in an organic system – all of a sudden the full system is going to reorganize and function on a whole different level when there's a sufficient increase of energy. It's like when you put in enough energy into ice, all of a sudden the whole thing rearranges itself and becomes liquid water. And you put even more energy into it and it is going to rearrange itself and all of a sudden become steam. And so likewise, the mental activity – the more positive force that you put into it, it's going to go through these various stages of arya and arhat, eventually Buddha, and function at its fullest. So we need to understand the necessity for doing that, how it works. That's how we are going to get to enlightenment: the combination of building up these two networks and networking them together – the network of positive force and of deep awareness, of voidness.

It's like, for example, if we want to reach a star which is a thousand light-years away, and we know why we want to reach that star – not just, okay, it would be nice to go there – but if we understand the necessity of reaching that star – if we reach that star then we're going to get all the abilities and so on to be able to help everybody as fully as possible.

  • And so first of all we have to aim at the correct star to get there; if you're a little bit off you are going to miss it.

  • And we have to be convinced that we have a rocket ship that can take us the whole way, all the way there, and that we can then use when we're there to take advantage of what's at that star.

  • And it's going to take us ten thousand years to get there, and we are convinced that well, there's a continuity of lifetime after lifetime after lifetime so we'll get there. It's not that I am going to die after fifty years and then the journey is finished.

  • And we have enough fuel – that's the positive force, network of positive force – that's going to get us there. The rocket ship is the mind, the mental activity. And we have enough fuel, and we continue to build up more fuel, so we're going to use solar wind or god knows what to get there. But we know that we can put in more and more fuel – we know what the fuel is, it's going to get us there.

  • And we know exactly the way to get there – then we'll get there. We can have confidence setting out on our rocket ship that we will eventually get there.

It's the same thing with bodhichitta. Without all of that, you give up, and you don’t have confidence that you can get there; you can't really put your heart into it. You might even miss the star because you didn’t aim correctly. And then in the middle you say, “Why am I bothering to go there anyway?” And you give up.

The Importance of Dedication

Dedication of that positive force is absolutely essential; to have it dedicated correctly. If we don’t dedicate it to liberation or enlightenment, then automatically any positive force that we build up is just going to function to improve samsara, our samsaric existence – it's part of the whole karmic process. So it's like you type a file and if you don’t press a certain button to save it in the "liberation" folder or in the "enlightenment" folder, automatically it's going to go into the "improve-samsara" folder. So, you have to dedicate, save that positive force as it builds up more and more into not just the liberation folder, but to save it in the enlightenment folder. And the force is going to be stronger and stronger depending on where we save it.

And so it is the same thing: we have the rocket ship, we have the fuel, but if the force is not very strong, what's going to happen? We're going to go up, but we'll just stay in orbit; we'll go around and around and around and around – that's samsara. We have to build up more force and dedicate it to liberation so you break out of orbit – liberation from samsara. Just breaking out of orbit and going toward liberation – well, that is not enough. We have to get it so that well go the speed of light – that's bodhichitta, so that we can actually reach this star a thousand light-years away.

An analogy sometimes can be a little bit helpful, but very important to get it, with that build-up of positive force, that it be directed properly. We have to do that, otherwise it's not going to work at all.

Stages of Bodhichitta

With relative bodhichitta there are two stages. One is called the “wishing stage” of bodhichitta, in which we just wish to achieve that enlightenment to be able to benefit everyone as much as possible, which of course is based on understanding what enlightenment is and how we will be able to benefit everybody – what it actually means and that it's possible to achieve it, not just wishing for something that is impossible.

This first stage of relative bodhichitta itself has two stages. First it's just merely wishing to achieve this enlightenment – aspiring to achieve it. And the second stage is the stage in which we are fully determined that we're never going to turn away from this goal. To be fully determined that I'm never going to turn away from this goal obviously has to be based on being totally confident that it's possible to achieve it, doesn't it? So that's why I'm emphasizing: it's really important to understand how it's possible to achieve it; and that it is possible to achieve it; and it's possible for me to achieve it; and to know how to do it, how it will work – so that then you can really be absolutely determined that I'm never going to turn away from this goal. So these are the two parts of the wishing stage.

The second stage of it is what's called the “engaged stage” of bodhichitta, and actually it's here where we definitely have to know how to achieve that enlightenment. It's based on that that we fully commit ourselves – “Yes! This is what I'm going to do!” and we're going to actually engage in all that activity which is going to bring us to enlightenment, which we can summarize in building up these two networks, strengthening these two networks, with the proper dedication of it to enlightenment.

The Bodhisattva Vows

It's at this point with the engaged bodhichitta that we take the bodhisattva vows. The bodhisattva vows are basically guidelines of what we want to avoid if we want to reach enlightenment, if we want to be able to benefit others. And the path for reaching enlightenment is to benefit others as much as we can now even though we're limited. And so these are the guidelines, bodhisattva vows, of what to avoid. We give that shape to our behavior; by taking the vows, it gives a shape to our mental continuum, a shape to our behavior and so on. This is the framework within which I'm going to work to achieve enlightenment. I'm not going to go beyond that, outside of those boundaries, as it were; they're going to shape my behavior on my way to enlightenment. These are the bodhisattva vows. And when we take it, it becomes part of our mental continuum from now until I reach enlightenment, so for all future lives. Obviously in the next life we'd have to retake it in order to recommit ourselves, but the instinct, the habit, is going to be there very strongly, so we'll be drawn to doing that. We have to refresh it, in a sense.

In other words, as a baby, if we've taken a bodhisattva vow in a previous lifetime, we still have those vows, but we may transgress them. In transgressing them it weakens the vow, but it's not that we are, you know, “Yes, this vow is stupid and I don’t want to follow this,” and forget it. It's not this really negative state of mind – “I'm really happy that I violated it and I have no intention of ever keeping it again,” and like that. It's with this full negative state of mind that you drop the vows. So, if you don’t have that – a baby doesn't know any better or a small child does not know any better – and so that just weakens the strength of the bodhisattva vow. Because it's basically that the bodhisattva vow is part of the mental continuum. And so when that child gets old enough to know what it's doing, the child can take the bodhisattva vow again – purify it, strengthen it again. And that's what we do. We do that even in this lifetime because inevitably we weaken it.

The point is not to lose it completely by being happy that I violated it and I have no intention of ever stopping violating it, and I don’t regret it at all (in fact I'm happy about it) and I have no sense of shame, I don’t care how it reflects on me, how it reflects on my teachers, or anything like that – then we've lost it. We've given it up. So this is what it means when it says that we have that bodhisattva vow from now to enlightenment. It's not like monks’ vows or nuns’ vows that you lose when you die. And tantric vows also we take all the way to enlightenment; it's the same mechanism as the bodhisattva vows.

Working Ourselves Up to Bodhichitta

At the present moment, we could have this wishing and this engaged state of bodhichitta, but we have to work ourselves up to really having this aim. We have to work ourselves up through stages to have it in the first place, but then during the course of the day, in our normal everyday lives, it doesn’t just come automatically. We have to go through the same steps in order to work ourselves up to actually feeling it. In other words, we have to go through some line of reasoning, steps, in order to actually feel it. And so there are two general methods of doing that.

  • One is called the seven-part cause and effect process for meditation, in which we are recognizing everybody has been our mother in previous lives, remembering the kindness of mothers, of motherly love, and so on.

  • The other one is called equalizing and exchanging our attitudes about self and others.

So either going through one of these sequences, or the other, or there's a way of combining them both into one sequence – then we work ourselves up through these stages to actually, “Yes! I'm aiming to enlightenment to benefit everybody," including all the cockroaches in the universe, equally.” It’s no small achievement to really feel it toward every insect of the universe, not just the people we like, and not just the people, and to be sincere in that.

Contrived and Uncontrived Bodhichitta

[NOTE: Since this lecture, I have changed my terminology. A more accurate translation of the Tibetan terms here, rtsol-bcas and rtsol-med, are “labored” and “unlabored” rather than “contrived” and “uncontrived.” A.B.]

In working through each of these stages in sequence, then based on all the understanding that we've discussed already, then we actually develop this aim sincerely, we actually feel it. This is meditation: we're familiarizing ourselves, making it into a habit, building it up, over and over and over again. And that's what's known as contrived bodhichitta. Some people might translate that as "artificial" – it doesn't mean that it's not sincerely felt, that it's not real. It just means you have to work at it through stages. Unless we have unbelievable instincts from previous lifetimes, which is very, very, very rare, we're all going to have to do that. Instincts that are just – automatically we have perfect bodhichitta without working through the stages, but that's almost nobody, so don’t fool ourselves into thinking that it's us.

We have to work through all these stages and meditation and so on to make it a habit. That's called contrived bodhichitta. We're talking about developing it sincerely, not a trivialized version of bodhichitta. As I say, we want to help every cockroach in the universe achieve enlightenment, and that's is pretty, pretty deep and pretty difficult. And eventually, when we've meditated enough and familiarized ourselves enough and worked ourselves up to sincerely feeling actual bodhichitta, then eventually we'll reach the uncontrived state. The uncontrived bodhichitta is when we don’t have to go through these stages one by one, but we just have it, without having to work through the stages. Just by remembering, automatically we have it fully. That's the uncontrived state. And when we don’t even have to remind ourselves of bodhichitta, but we have this uncontrived bodhichitta all the time, then we become a bodhisattva. That's a bodhisattva. So don’t trivialize becoming a bodhisattva. Please.

When we think in terms of the five paths – these are actually pathway minds that are going to bring us to our goal – the first of these is usually translated as the "path of accumulation.” I call it a "pathway mind of building up” – you're building up more and more basic causes. But it's only at this point when we have uncontrived bodhichitta all the time that you actually enter the path, that we actually have the first pathway mind, the first level of the pathway mind, the path of accumulation. That's where a lot of the discussion starts. We've finally climbed up; everything before that is like preliminary. Climbing up to the base camp of Mount Everest, you finally reach base camp. By the way, this is the Mahayana pathway of building up, accumulation.

And, when we say that we have it all the time – a bodhisattva has uncontrived bodhichitta all the time – that doesn't mean that it has to be conscious all the time. A bodhisattva has this even when the bodhisattva is asleep. What that means is that even when you're asleep you still have that aim; you never lose that aim, to achieve enlightenment and benefit everyone. And so that's why it says, when we read in Shantideva, Engaging in the Bodhisattva Behavior: once you've actually developed it – we're not talking about the early stages, we're talking about when you're actually a bodhisattva – then that builds up positive force all the time, because you never lose that aim, because it's uncontrived, it's there. Of course, each moment is changing, changing, changing, but there's a continuity of this. I mean it's not static, but when we are awake, when we are asleep, no matter what we're doing, that bodhichitta aim is always there. That's a bodhisattva, so as I say it's very important not to trivialize, “Oh, this one is a bodhisattva,” or you know, “I'm now a bodhisattva,” and so on. It's really quite extraordinary, quite extraordinary. And then everything you do is beneficial, because everything you do is with that aim.

Bodhisattvas, Liberation, and Enlightenment

Just one last point before the break. We sometimes hear, “Well, what's a bodhisattva?” A bodhisattva is someone who's not going to enter into nirvana until they have been able to help everybody. So, what does that mean? What that means is building up positive force through many, many positive types of actions. If we're aiming, if the dedication is for liberation, it doesn't take till long – in several lifetimes you can do it, once you've reached a certain stage. Whereas to reach enlightenment, which means to not put all that positive force into liberation folder, but to save it in the enlightenment folder – to do that is going to require a tremendous amount of time because it requires a tremendous amount of positive force. And so this is what the bodhisattva does. A bodhisattva is not going to put all that positive force toward liberation, which is possible to achieve in much less time; but because a bodhisattva wants to benefit everybody as much as possible, the bodhisattva will put all that positive force into the enlightenment folder, which is going to require a tremendous, tremendous amount of time to fill up in order to be able to benefit others. So that's what it means that a bodhisattva gives up achieving his own nirvana, which means liberation. Liberation will come along the path of putting all the positive force into the enlightenment folder, but it'll take much longer. And the bodhisattva attitude is, “I don’t care how long it takes, I'm never going to give up,” which of course is based on full confidence that the mental continuum goes on forever – otherwise the whole thing doesn't make any sense.

So let's take a five-minute break.